Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Farm Camp - Introduction

Over Columbus Day weekend I had the incredible opportunity to attend Farm Camp for Food Professionals. Sponsored by Flying Pigs Farm (whose memorable bacon was included in this post) and aided by a generous grant from New York State, the purpose of the two-day camp was to “learn where good food starts”.

Flying Pigs Farm is located in Washington County, New York in a town called Shushan. Along with four other campers, I took the two-hour Amtrak train ride from Penn Station to Albany where we met Mike Yezzi, who along with his wife, Jen Small, own Flying Pigs. Mike drove us another hour northeast to the farm. I knew I was headed north but I didn’t realize how far -Washington County sits on the New York/Vermont border.

Barreling down the back roads (as all the locals seem to do!), I was struck by how few people were around. Not that it felt desolate; as we made our way to the farm my senses were full, just as in the city, but rather than buildings, lights, and noise, they were filled with the passing vistas of uninterrupted farmland running into mountain ranges and vast expanses of blue sky and puffy, white clouds. Noise consisted of the occasional mooing of cows, snuffling of pigs, and constant clucking of chickens. Coming from the chaos of the city, I could feel my whole body exhale, then take a deep inhalation of the crisp, clean, wonderful air. Farming may be relentless, physical work but I understand the appeal of living in these surroundings. It is spectacular country.

Once there we met up with the other ten campers. We had a great group of people, all Manhattanites, from Murray’s Cheese, Tom Cat Bakery, Astor Center, Boqueria, Inside Park, Jean-Georges, and Perry St, as well as the great food writer and historian, Betty Fussell. Rounding out the crew were Erin Fairbanks, a former professional cook at Savoy and Gramercy Tavern who now works with Jen and Mike on the farm and who kept all of us informed and moving throughout our stay – an amazing feat - and Sean McEntee, a talented photographer who documented both the blissful and squirm-inducing moments of the trip (more on that later!).

In preparation for Farm Camp, Jen and Mike had transformed the barn across the street from their farmhouse into a beautiful meeting place for rural farmers and urban food professionals to learn, discuss, and share meals together. One of the goals of Farm Camp was to expose those of us from New York City, where many food trends are started, to the realities of agriculture in the NYC foodshed. The better we understood the farming practices, distribution channels, and economics of this region the more likely we would be to use our influence to encourage support of locally grown and raised products. Upstate farmers and downstate culinary professionals need each other to meet our greatest, most delicious and satisfying potential.

There were a few moments to settle in but with a full agenda, no time to waste (not to mention we were all eager to dive in and start learning!). We began with a history of the farm, which was originally founded in the 1820’s, and discussed the region it resides in. Washington County’s main industry is agriculture, of which dairy farming is the largest segment. The soil here is rich, but because of the hilly landscape, best suited for raising animals, not vegetables.

Jen and Mike are strong advocates for farmland protection and in fact purchased the 19th century farm to keep its 200 acres from being developed. Once the land was theirs, the challenge became deciding what to do with it to generate income. The name for the farm came from the feeling that they would be farmers “when hell freezes over” or “when pigs fly”. Both had Master’s degrees in public health and full time jobs off the farm. Even though Jen didn’t want to kill animals, as they began considering their options, raising cows and goats fell off the list because of the start-up expense and amount of time required to care for and milk them. Pigs remained. What began with 3 pigs in 1999 has grown to 600 in 2009.

Flying Pigs is not a certified organic farm and over the course of the next day and a half I found that not uncommon among the farms we visited. Organic certification is an involved process that doesn’t automatically make for a better food product. Government regulation of the word organic has created loopholes, courtesy of Washington lobbyist representing Big Organic companies, enabling practices that many good farmers don’t consider in the spirit of the meaning “organic”. Many farms, including Flying Pigs, practice the principles of organic, but don’t qualify for one reason or another.

From the start, Jen and Mike sounded a theme that was echoed throughout our stay: it’s all about the animals – keep them healthy and happy. Their pigs live on a wholesome diet of fruit and vegetables, grass and shrubs, and regular grains (not organic, one reason they are not certified organic). None of their chickens or pigs receives hormones to make them grow faster or antibiotics to keep them healthy as is the norm on factory farms.

Flying Pigs livestock don’t need them because along with a natural diet they get plenty of exercise, fresh air and are frequently rotated to clean pasture. On the rare occasion one of the animals gets sick and there is no alternative other than medicine, it is administered so the animal does not suffer.

This attention to care results in more than a happy and healthy animal; it makes for rich eggs and succulent, flavorful meat. How an animal lives its life has everything to do with how it will taste. And that was, after all, why we campers had made the trip; to discover the hows and whys of what makes the best food and where to find it. The farmers of Washington County think they have it and wanted to show us. Off we went!

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